If you are a sports parent, you may have watched the video Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller posted on Instagram that went viral earlier this week.
The video shows his young son running up a mountain road. Miller, who once thrived in such high altitudes as a downhill skier, captures the moment as he appears to drive behind him.
According to Miller’s Instagram account, the boy “quit on” his soccer team and, therefore, “I let him run the hill.”
“For those who are concerned, the hill running was his idea,” the post read. “He said he didn’t run during the game. This kid is next level. #prouddad”
Some who commented on the post applauded Miller’s “tough love.” Others thought his apparent punishment was too harsh.
We don’t know all the details, or what Miller’s intention was in posting the video. But he has provided an introspective moment for all parents. Let’s put into perspective some themes he raises:
1. Commitment to a team is important, but so is understanding the reasons your child’s commitment might waiver.
“This was about so much more than a game of soccer,” Miller’s post read. “It’s about teaching our kids never to quit.”
But maybe Miller’s son, or your son or daughter, doesn’t like soccer, or another sport. You can see such signs with a lack of effort or in other ways. Kids also can check out quickly, especially if we push a sport or concept on them.
When my older son was 8, he was still learning to play baseball. He was frustrated, I suspect, that some kids were better than him. One summer Saturday morning, when I took him out to a field to informally practice with other kids, I kept him there after everyone left and ran him through more drills. He didn’t enjoy it.
“I don’t like baseball as much as you,” he told me.
I had turned baseball into a negative experience — at least in that moment — and was in danger of losing him completely.
I backed off and we didn’t play for the rest of the summer. His interest reignited when we returned in the fall and he is still playing it — and loving it — in high school.
Remember, too, that kids want to please you as a parent. Maybe Miller’s son wanted to run that hill. Or maybe he just wanted to please his dad.
But he still might want to play soccer again.
2. Our kids aren’t superhuman, they’re just human — like us
Even Miller, the most decorated male alpine skier in U.S. history, is not a superhero. He reached a point where he didn’t want to do it at the highest level anymore.
“There are just so many other variables that come into play with skiing, and the biggest one is the desire and willingness to take risks and lay your body out there,” he told The Boston Globe for a story published this month. “That definitely goes away more as you get older. I didn’t really do it for any of that.”
Sometimes we as coaches, or parents, expect players, or kids, to be too much like us.
When he managed the Senators and Rangers, Ted Williams seemed frustrated his players didn’t have the same keen batter’s eye he did. More recently, Patrick Ewing couldn’t seem to figure out why even his veteran players on Georgetown’s men’s basketball team couldn’t compete at a superior level for an entire game, as he once did.
I wanted my son to like baseball as much as I did from an early age. But it’s OK for our kids to like, and be good at, other things than we are. Or it’s even OK for them to not be as good as we were. And it’s OK for them to try something and change their minds.
Maybe Miller is channeling his son’s inner triathlete by having him run up a mountain. More likely, he’s displacing his own remaining passion to compete.
3. Punishment vs. discipline
When I coached my younger son’s fourth-grade basketball team in a competitive church league, some of our players treated our biweekly practices like recess. This was OK to a point, but it became frustrating when I tried to explain drills and plays.
I asked one dad who stayed for practice if he would run an “exercise corner” in the gym for kids who weren’t paying attention. The boys who acted up did push-ups and other calisthenics. We didn’t overdo it, and we made it all seem like fun.
Some parents disliked this method of coaching and I got a call from the church’s director of activities, who gently mentioned the complaints to me. These parents thought I was punishing their kids; I felt I was disciplining them. Maybe we need to distinguish between the two.
To me, punishment is what I saw the other night at my son’s baseball game. He’s now in seventh grade, still an impressionable age. When the game was close in the last inning and we stole second base, the opposing coach loudly berated his shortstop for not covering the bag. He swore as his voice loudly — and awkwardly — carried across the field. When he made a pitching change, he continued to yell at his shortstop as he took the ball and tossed it to the new pitcher instead of simply handing it to him.
My intent with the calisthenics was to teach a lesson about the importance of practice and discipline. This coach just wanted to win, and he humiliated a kid in the process.
Let’s hope Miller hasn’t done that with his viral video, too.
Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now loving life as sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler.
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